Rediscovering London 1: Soho
Recently I mentioned that the more I traveled the less I found comparably pleasing in London, from obvious complaints (litter and dirt, public advertising, poor pedestrianisation) to larger, less solvable problems (endless privatisation, sky-high rents, overcharging and overcrowding). I’ve been bugged most of all by the half-hearted approach to problem solving; for example an initiative to remove barriers and kerbs in London streets which proved hugely successful at Oxford Circus now seems to have been abandoned.
And try as you might to feel generous, the city works against such feelings. Our Mayor has decided to charge for viewing New Year’s Eve fireworks (despite the fact that we already pay for them in our taxes) citing health and safety issues, when cities double the size with much bigger free displays manage brilliantly because they’re better organised. Nevertheless I’m pushing on with a conscious attempt to fall back in love with London before I fall out with my home town forever.
So today I started with the one of the worst spots in the entire city; Soho.
Wrecked by over-commercialisation and construction work for Crossrail, buried under scaffolding in the race to create new investment opportunities for the super-rich, Soho has turned from being a Bohemian watering hole and the centre for sex shops, tailoring, film and TV post-production into a giant rubbish dump of fast food junk-dining – or so I thought.
A closer look reveals some interesting psychogeography. A former Spanish restaurant has become a gourmet jamon butcher. The once-beloved Grahams Jewish fish restaurant has become a fish and chip shop. Independent stores are replacing poorly performing chains (at least to some extent). There are signs of regrowth all over the area, thanks to the success of pop-ups and the current appeal of street-food/shared dining. Around the John Snow pub there were once art stores – now they’re being reinvented as small galleries. Music and book shops still survive – the dreaded Carnaby Street is full of chain stores but is relatively bearable. And the Grade II listed Marshall Street Baths are fully reopened. They were built in 1850, closed in 1997 and eventually refurbished as a modern leisure centre.
Much of Soho’s continued success is down to private enterprise rather than public planning, but it’s still welcome. The new Foyles bookshop is staggering – vast and beautifully designed, a real focal-point for the still blocked-off Charing Cross Road. And with further renovations to come, I’m hoping the character of Soho is reborn – but it will need more looking after than it’s currently getting. One thing that desperately needs addressing in this low-rise area is how much renovation affects surrounding buildings. In most modern cities under continual reinvention, tight rules mean that reconstruction happens invisibly. Soho’s digs are a filthy mess.
The gay quarter has all but vanished (social media and high rents have taken care of that), but many of the buildings are protected and the fabric at least will remain unchanged. I miss the division of streets into specialist zones – basically the entire area is now one dining experience – but I can see now that perhaps the character will stay after all. Private clubs have returned, cheap eats have replaced fine dining – and the Gay Hussar, home of socialist politicians meeting and eating, is to close its historic doors, although its food won’t be missed.
And a sad moment; I walked past the building I’d owned for thirty years, where so many of us shared our lives, and found it derelict and ready for gutting into apartments for wealthy investors.
So: Rediscovered Soho? 6 out of 10. There’s a long way to go, but it’s a hopeful start.